One of thrash metal’s most respected acts, San Francisco’s Testament are true survivors. Overcoming changing musical tides, serious illness, and a multitude of personnel issues during their almost thirty year career, the Bay Area five-piece are about the release their eleventh album ‘Brotherhood Of The Snake’. An album fraught with tension during its creation, we caught up with singer Chuck Billy to chat about its difficult birth, his unlikely audition for Sepultura, and much more besides. Falling Fast; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Chuck, how are you today?
I’m doing well. I’m just starting my day right now, just getting fired up. We’re leaving next week for the tour, so we’re coming over to Europe where I’m sure it’s not as sunny as it is here in California.
You're gearing up for the release of The Brotherhood Of The Snake; are you excited to get it out?
Yeah, it’s something that took a long time for us to get to this point. It was a long process – it took a lot out of us to get this record done. We’re excited for people to hear it because it took us about a two year process, and there were a lot of emotions. I built up a lot of anger and frustration with Eric [Peterson, guitarist] trying to get this record done.
So it was a difficult process working on this one?
Yeah, I don’t know what was going on - I really don’t, but we had a bunch of riffs, I had a lot of lyrics, we knew we needed to get a record done, and I just kept harping; “let’s finish arranging these songs!” I don’t know why, but we just couldn’t do it, so I just built up a lot of frustration with Eric, and we had to go into the studio to record if we wanted a record out this year. We had to book our studio time in May because Gene [Hoglan, drummer] only had a couple of weeks available at that point.
So you had less preparation this time around?
We went in for the first time without a demo or any of that stuff, but I think, at the end of the day, now that we’re at the end of it and it’s out; I think maybe we had to go through what we had to go through to make the record as special as it is. You always try to outdo yourself - you always try to find the best mix you possibly can, so when we were entering the studio without the record being all finished, it was kind of like; “oh shit! Maybe we’re going to rush this, maybe it was a bad decision”. It could have went the other way very badly.
What exactly was your frustration with Eric; was he suffering from writer’s block?
No, he had all the riffs, but when we first started writing, he started giving me riffs, and I said, “okay; where is the lead, where is the chorus?” And he said; “I don’t know, just go ahead and write a bunch of words and we’ll figure it out and sort through it later”. So that’s what I did, so a lot of the times when I presented stuff to Eric, he’s like; “oh, don’t sing there, that’s where the lead guitars are”, and I’m like; “yeah, but I don’t know that” – I’m just writing lyrics, dude, I don’t know”. So, I was like that with him for a year and a half, and it really just made me frustrated because I was like; “I need the arrangements, Eric, I need to know how to put it all together”. And, you know, it just didn’t happen, so at that point I just had to say; “you know what, fuck it, let’s just go in the studio. I guess we don’t have a fucking choice because if we’re just going to sit around and wait for Eric, it may never happen”.
So you had to take the reins to make the album happen?
I kind of put the pressure on and put a fire under our ass so we had no choice; “Gene’s coming, it’s got to be done”, but even up to the point of where Gene arrived, we still didn’t have a demo, we still hadn’t jammed live, and the songs still weren’t arranged. So when Gene arrived, he still hadn’t heard vocals, he still hadn’t heard leads, he still hadn’t heard completed songs; he just heard a bunch of ideas and riffs. So it was just a weird start, and it was really nerve wracking. But in the end, I think with having our backs against the wall and the pressure on us, maybe it really pushed us to that edge of getting creative. In the end we didn’t have too much time to second guess what we were doing. Maybe if we had too much time we might have polished it up too much and it wouldn’t have been the kind of raw record that it is.
There’s a fantastic mix of classic and modern Testament on the album; from the harder edged title track to grooving numbers like ‘Born In A Rut’.
It has a little of everything, and that’s what I really like about the songs. I was nervous in the writing part because there was some riffs that he had in some of the pieces that I thought; that doesn’t even fit – what is that riff doing there? But once the vocal was written, I was like; “wow, that works really well now!”. So how it came together it blows me away, and I’m really happy and feel fortunate that we had Gene and Alex [Skolnick, guitarist] and Steve [DiGiorgio, bassist], you know, top notch guys that just came in and killed it – in the dark!
I couldn’t be more proud of the record, considering how scared I was going into it. And now that it’s done, I feel that this one outdid [2012’s] ‘Dark Roots Of Earth’ and god, man; I never want to go through this process ever again. I really expressed myself to Eric after recording the record, like; “dude, I did not have fun on this. It was not fun; you did not make it fun for me, and I do not want to do this again Eric like this – please”. It was a big struggle.
That’s surprising as even though the band has had its struggles in the past, recent history would make it appear that from the outside, the band is solid once again.
Well, I mean I don’t know because it’s never been like that. Usually we get together and jam and throw riffs around and stuff. This time Gene and Alex – everybody was busy, so we really didn’t have that opportunity. It all fell on Eric, and I don’t know if it was to much for him, but I just knew that I was frustrated. Even when we were done, I said; “dude, you know what, I’m not doing any interviews on this record, because I’m going to do interviews that are going to sound like I’m just talking shit because I didn’t have fun”. What am I going to say ? Everything was wonderful? It was great - this is the best thing I’ve ever did?! I want to keep it real, you know?
Your vocal performance on the new album is astounding. You seem to approach singing differently these days, with less double-tracking.
Yeah, for sure. On the ‘Dark Roots Of Earth’, we really went for more of a single, drier approach, and I liked it. I really wanted to keep it single tracked and only double it up when it needs; like on a bigger chorus part or something. I think it’s feeling comfortable; because me and Eric have always been involved in the mixes, and I think being involved, maybe we put too much effects on the guitars or the voice, and maybe it didn’t make the record sound any better by doing that. So we’ve learned that the drier it is - the louder it is, the cleaner it is; it’s rock solid in the raw stuff, so when we found that element last time on that record, we were like; “you know what, we should have been doing this long ago”. That’s the direction that we wanted to keep it, from that point forward. You’ll hear every word almost now – you’re not struggling to hear what I’m saying.
You're back in the U.K. and Ireland in late October and early November with Amon Amarth; are you looking forward to the dates?
Yeah, I really am looking forward to the tour. We were approached over a year ago to support them, and we agreed to it. We thought we’d have a record out six months already, but the timing just worked out for the tour! *laughing* I think it’s definitely an opportunity for Testament to play in front of some fans of Amon Amarth that may not be into Testament, or knows Testament’s history or music. And who knows, maybe there’s some old school Testament thrash fans that are coming that don’t necessarily know Amon Amarth either? It’s a round package.
How do you go about choosing a new set list?
We get fifty minutes on this tour, so we’re already talking about putting three of the songs off the new record in the show; so it’s going to be a third of the set will be new songs. On this one it’s going to be straight to the point, just the killers.
The band covered Iron Maiden’s ‘Powerslave’ in 2012, which appeared on the B Side of the ‘Native Blood’ single. Why did you choose that track in particular?
Well that was Eric’s choice. I remember when we did that record, I knew we were going to do [Queen’s] ‘Dragon Attack’, and I didn’t really know we were doing the Maiden song, but I was fine with it. That’s a good song. I thought the guys really did a great job, musically. It’s pretty solid. I liked the challenge because I don’t sing like that; I don’t get a chance that often to sing other people’s stuff. So when I do, even when I know it’s hard going into it, I kind of just go; “say yes, you’re going to do it”, and I put the pressure on myself; “all right, you’ve committed, now you’ve got to learn it and do it”.
Speaking about singing other people’s songs, it's you tried out for Sepultura when Max quit in 1996.
Yeah, around that time was right before the ‘Demonic’ record, so we had finished our Atlantic [Records] contract, and we were shopping for a new deal. We didn’t really have a deal yet, and at the last minute, I just said; “you know what? Maybe I should try to find a band that’s solid, that’s going to keep touring and continue on”, and at that point Sepultura was taking auditions, and I think it was at the end [of the audition process] that I decided; screw it, I’m going to do it. I think I did three songs; I did ‘Refuse / Resist’, I did ‘Territory’, and I wrote my version of ‘Choke’, and gave it to them. But by the time I had delivered, they had already made their decision for [the appointment of new singer] Derrick [Green], which in the end, was probably the way it all should have worked out.
Was it a strange feeling to be performing with a new bunch of guys after playing with the same band for most of your career?
It would have been yeah. I don’t know if I was really prepared, and if they had have said; “okay, you’re in”, I would have said; “well let me think about that!” I don’t know what I would have done. I just did it at the spur of the moment, like; “fuck it, what have I got to lose?!”.
How is your health these days?
So far, so good. My health as far as the cancer; I’ve been cancer-free for quite some time now. I get me check-ups once a year, and everything’s all good. I’m not a spring chicken anymore, so I definitely want to take care of myself better; get a little more exercise in. I’ve stopped drinking now; I want to live longer, I guess, so I’ve kind of, really been taking care of myself.
It was after your health scare that the band reformed its original line-up. How was it stepping back into the old band?
At our first rehearsal, that very first one was a little rough, and we were stumbling through a lot of stuff, but the next day, we were solid, and right away it reminded me; I just had that feeling like – “yep, that’s the sound”. Alex has a different tone and picking style than Eric, but together they have what I remember as the Testament sound. So, when he came back, and Greg [Christian, original bassist], and Louie [Clemente, original drummer] – all of us – we all had the whole reunion, it was a wonderful feeling, and especially for me, because I beat cancer, and while I was ill with cancer, I didn’t think I was going to be playing music again. That wasn’t in my plan, because I looked in the mirror and really didn’t see the same person that was the lead singer of Testament.
That mush have made the reunion all the more special for you.
Fortunately, the whole reunion thing kind of sprung up by a promoter in Holland asking if we could get the original line-up to play the Dynamo festival, because he had the original Anthrax playing. So I said; “you, know, that would be great”, because Anthrax was a big part of Testament - they were the first band to take us to Europe back in ’87. To reunite and then play the Dynamo – which was our first stop ever in Europe, it made sense. So I called everybody, and then within a week, everybody said yeah, they were into it. It was just one show, but that one show developed into five, and then to the ‘Ten Days In May’ tour, and then all these years later, here we are.
I have to ask about former bassist Greg Christian’s recent negative comments in the press.
We shot our video last weekend – we’re actually documenting some of the history of the ‘Legacy’ record, and we’ll hopefully put out a thirty year anniversary edition or something - and we invited Greg to come down. Even with all the stuff that he has said [in the past], we still thought it was the right thing to do to invite him, because he was a part of it. He came down, and he said; “I’m not going to bring any negativity - it’s all going to be positive. So he came down, did his thing, and we all said hi, smoked a joint together, and he was off on his way – no big deal. I don’t know what happened by the time that he got home, but by the evening, he just went on a rant again. I can’t quite figure out what’s going on or why, but his accusations are very delusional.
Finally, when is the Testament MTV unplugged album going to happen?
*laughing* In the afterlife – when we’re really unplugged!
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'Brotherhood Of The Snake' is released on 28th October via Nuclear Blast Records.
Amon Amarth with Testament and Grand Magus U.K. and Ireland 2016 Dates.
31 Oct – Manchester, Academy
1 Nov – Glasgow, O2 ABC
2 Nov – Dublin, Vicar Street
4 Nov – London, Roundhouse
5 Nov – Birmingham, O2 Academy